Thursday, December 31, 2015

1 for 8 on Mountains in Colorado in the Winter

Pacific on the far left, Atlantic in the center and 5th class ridge to  Fletcher on the right.
We came out to Colorado to try and climb a mountain. Picking a mountain is always difficult. In the winter it is especially difficult.

We wanted to do something tall, like a 14er, we wanted to do something steep, not necessarily technical but something harder than a walk, something that required an ice axe and crampons, and also something relatively short. It's amazing how hard three miles one way in the winter can be.
Pacific peak, the west ridge, seemed to be the perfect mountain, about six miles round trip, a third class ridge for about a thousand feet and topping out at 13,950 feet it is the 61st highest mountain in Colorado.

We woke up at 4:30 AM to get a start on the day. Had a quick breakfast and then headed over Vail pass to route 91 and the Mayflower Gulch trailhead.
Prepping in the car in the cold at the Trailhead
We started hiking around 6:30, which was about a half hour behind schedule. I point that out because there were a slew of issues that led to our ultimate results for the day. We also left the snowshoes behind. After about a mile we veered off through the meadow, because I thought it would be closer to the valley (on the far left of the first picture) that we were headed up to reach Pacific.
Looking back down the valley as we tromped across the meadow.
However, the trail through the meadow was a ski and snowshoe trail, and while my ground pressure is pretty low, because I don't weight much, my two climbing partners sunk into the snow more than I. The trail looped back to the main packed down trail which we did not need any flotation for, meaning we wasted probably 15-20 minutes in the meadow that we didn't need to.

Just before we reached the cabins there was another ski and snowshoe trail that headed up in the direction we wanted to do, so we headed across the meadow. Well, the same thing happened where we needed more flotation than our boots provided. It wasn't so bad for me, but my two climbing partners struggled more than I post holing in the snow. Lesson: probably best to take snow shoes or skis. The reason I don't is that where you get to a serious place, like summit day on K2 or Everest, there will be no snowshoes and you will have to post hole. So I view these little trips as training. Plus, snowshoes are only useful up to about 30 degrees, and most of the places I like to climb are that steep or steeper. The down side for my climbing partners is that they typically weigh more than 135 pounds and just don't have the flotation I do.

In short, crossing the meadow was a huge energy expenditure and not having snowshoes probably put us another hour behind schedule. It was exhausting, and it wasn't as hard for me as the other two.

We started contouring around the west ridge of Atlantic. When we reached about 12,150 ft. we had our first view of the west ridge of Pacific, our original objective. At that point it was 10:25 AM and we were far enough away and the ridge looked steep enough that we decided to just climb the second class ridge to the top of Atlantic.
West ridge of Pacific in the background, hiking up the west ridge on Atlantic at 12,150 feet.
We headed up the ridge and it was cold. I put my down jacket on. In packing in the morning I made the mistake of not bringing my hardshell pants, so I only had tights and my soft shell bib pants on my legs, which were of course cold.

At 11:30 AM we crested a small knoll in the ridge at 12,850 feet and saw that we still had at least a half mile and 1000 vertical feet, and were not going to make that by 1 PM. It was even more windy, maybe 20 mph winds sustained and 30 mph gusts, and while I am not sure the actual temperature, it was cold enough that I was only moderately comfortable in my big down jacket so at this point with no respite from the wind on the exposed ridge ahead we decided to turn around, having never even gotten to a point where we needed to put crampons on. Personally, I wasn't feeling that good either between the altitude and having more than one drink of alcohol the night before this. I didn't take any of my own pictures because it was so cold.
Descending the west ridge of Atlantic
We headed back down the ridge the same way we came up. and then across the meadow. It was even more exhausting than the first time. There is always a mental let down on the descent, a sort of relaxing, or not caring, or absent minded attitude that the summit, or lack of summit, is over and we just have to get back, no one cares about the descent. 
Our route across the meadow and zig zagging up the west ridge of Atlantic
It terrifies me, not caring about the descent. For me it is the time to be on your game and not make any mistakes. 80% of mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. We had a nice descent, no one got hurt, although I did post hole and fall on my face near the end of the ridge.

We reached the car at about 2:30, about eight hours after leaving in the morning. Overall, it was a very good day. It was a good learning experience, a nice day in the mountains.

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